Connection and Loss — what I learned from one Indigenous youth

A few years ago I decided to apply to be a volunteer mentor with a local youth serving organization. I wanted to gain experience in a structured, professional context, after having worked informally for years with youth in community settings and grassroots organizing. I was in school doing my Bachelor of Education at the time, shifting from my career in the non-profit sector to teaching in the public school system. Volunteering for this organization also would give me access to free training and certification such as First Aid and CPR and ASIST, applied suicide intervention.

Because I wrote in my application that I am queer and non-binary, I got paired with D, a youth who was 18 years old and queer or more accurately Two-Spirit*. They were working on completing high school and had just moved back in with a family member on the nearby reserve after years of living in foster care and group homes in the city. We connected instantly about art and subculture because not only did we share similar non-binary gender identities but also shared a love of art, music and punk aesthetic and ethos. On one of our first hangouts D told me about their philosophy on fashion and how they had learned to patch their pants with dental floss to make amazing crusty punk black denim outfits as a way to express the metaphor that broken pieces can be stitched back together. I told them I used to sew patches on my ripped clothes with dental floss too, back in the day! I was thrilled to meet such a kindred spirit and was excited to help them navigate the city’s art and music community, introducing them to resources and opportunities.

One day D asked me to help them move out of their situation with family on the reserve. It was around the time that D had aged out of the mentorship program with the youth serving agency. Despite the end of our access to support from the program, we had continued meeting up and communicating as usual. They wanted me to drive them and their bags of belongings into the city to an apartment they had rented with help from their social worker and trustee. When I agreed over text, I had no idea what it would entail. It turned out that they were fighting with their parent about past trauma and neglect and ongoing addictions and had no way to escape the house in the -30 degrees Celsius winter weather with no access to a vehicle or transit.

I ended up responding to their texts, picking them up and driving them in a car away from their parent, who did not want them to leave, and bringing them to the city. As if this was a better option. The city, where they had no where to stay (turned out the apartment wasn’t confirmed yet) and no phone, in the middle of winter, on a frigid night. After dropping them off at a 24 hr fast food restaurant at their request, I felt disgusted with myself and stayed awake all night tossing and turning. I worried about D, hating that I had participated in separating them from their family in that way. I saw the role I had played as a continuation of the hundreds of years of white-saviour colonialism, disrupting Indigenous families and stealing children away. Even though my only intention was to support D and center their choices, and D was not a child, was 19 years old and was exerting their independence, the parallels to the story of residential schools and sixties scoop were obvious. It was no wonder I would occasionally receive angry, accusatory texts from D’s parent for over a year after that incident, even after I had lost contact with D.

Over the three years that we met up, I watched D grow up from a cute, queer, arty, nerdy teenager into a lean, tattooed adult, coping with meth addiction. There was nothing I could do to influence decisions or prevent hardships, when even providing support was difficult because D was rarely in touch, usually without a cell phone or any device. We would email one-line messages back and forth in gmail, chatting in real time, when D was at a public computer at the library. We would set times to meet up and I would go to the train station or the library or the Tim Hortons where we had arranged to meet and wait for sometimes an hour before giving up, accepting that D had flaked again. Occasionally we did connect and those times, driving from place to place in my car, chatting and catching up were worth the ongoing worry and disappointment because it felt good to have this awesome young person in my life. We had a bond based on mutual respect and reciprocity.

However, the subtext or undercurrent of this relationship was not far below the surface at any given time. How can someone like me, a middle-aged, middle class, white settler, connect with and find equal ground for friendship or mentorship with someone like D? Our queerness provided common ground for connection and our shared interests helped too, but ultimately the legacy of colonialism put D into deep intergenerational trauma and poverty and put me into the relative wealth and comfort of white middle class existence. We are worlds apart. Despite the genuine human connection we forged, and my commitment to the mentorship, I had to let go of the hope of sustaining the relationship or creating community around it.

The last time I saw D was before the winter holidays. They proposed we meet at a Tim Hortons that was within an hour walking distance from where they were staying on the reserve just outside the city. The plan fell through as I arrived and waited half an hour before receiving a text from an unknown number that D was still at home and wasn’t going to make it. I asked if I could pick them up from home and they accepted the offer. So, an hour and a half after we were scheduled to meet, we were both seated at the Tim’s with a coffee, staring awkwardly at the table between us. We had some small talk and then D said they wanted to leave. I clarified if they wanted a ride home and they confirmed that was what they wanted. During the drive D seemed anxious and detached, uninterested in any of the topics we used to discuss. They said that they didn’t make art anymore, that it got boring and they can’t sit still long enough to draw. I dropped them off and waited to see them open the door of the house and go inside. I drove slowly away over the snowy tracks on the one lane road, feeling in my heart that I might never see D again.

I miss D and the brilliance they shared with me when we were hanging out. I learned about music from them, synth wave and vaporwave, aesthetic, digital art, post-human body modification, anime and D’s own creative universe of stories and characters that were going to be a novel or a series of graphic novels. I mourn the loss of D in my life and I worry about them, can’t help wondering if they are alive, wondering if there is anything I could have done to support them better or if we will ever see each other again. The conclusion I arrive at is that I can’t know. Maybe I could have supported them better if I was more connected to their Indigenous community. Maybe they needed support rooted in shared cultural identity, not some white queer ally, however empathetic, genuine and committed. Role models who look like them, reflect their own identity, social context, community and history, strength and resilience.

I don’t know where D is at and to be honest I fear the worst. But, I push through the entrenched racist stereotypes still etched in my socially conditioned psyche, and I work to convince myself that D is D, wherever they are at. That they are finding the support and the role models they need in their own family, community and culture. Or that they are finding whatever inspiration and outlets they need to heal and create their life in whatever ways work for them. That their version of life doesn’t need to conform to a white supremacy culture norm of being “okay” or even what “okay” looks like.

I grieve the loss of connection and relationship with D, and also the loss of all the beautiful, rich, potential relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and communities that have been stolen by this racist, colonial society in which we live. I feel grateful and privileged to have known and spent time with D for the 3 years that we had, and I see immense value in attempting to bridge across the worlds and to cultivate relationships in a spirit of gratitude and hope.

*Two-Spirit is a reclaimed concept created by Indigenous communities as an umbrella term to encompass various cultural expressions of fluid and non-binary genders and sexualities. The term is not an Indigenous equivalent of LGBTQ identities, but rather a unique concept that only makes sense within Indigenous worldviews and social structures. This definition is paraphrased from Two-Spirit Cree Scholar, Harlan Pruden’s work and public speaking.

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Sylvanus Oliver

queer white settler, writing as acknowledgement and accountability, curiosity and questioning